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Jewish Advice Columnists from Miss Manners to Dear Abby

Meet Jewish women who have turned advice-giving into an art—and a career.

By Ruth Andrew Ellenson
Fall 2008

The business of advice-giving may be an honorary Jewish profession, but some savvy Jewish women have been able to turn it into their livelihood. From Dear Abby to Miss Manners to Dear Prudence, Jewish women have gone from giving advice around the koffee klatch to being some of the most powerful public voices on social etiquette and customs in America.

“If you’re a natural-born yenta, what could be more fun than getting paid to give advice?” asks Emily Yoffe, who has been in the advice business since 2005, writing the “Dear Prudence” column on Slate.com.

In 1906, the Yiddish newspaper The Forward began a column called “A Bintel Brief”—Yiddish for “A Bundle of Letters.” In an effort to offer guidance to Jews fresh off the boat from Europe, the column’s editors dispensed advice on everything from intermarriage to negotiating with business partners who spoke other languages.

“Many of the letters in ‘The Bintel Brief’ were from Jewish immigrants attempting to adjust to the challenges of life in America,” observes prominent Jewish feminist Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg, author of the new book Surprised by God and editor of Yentl’s Revenge: The Next Wave of Jewish Feminism.

“These challenges were particularly acute for Jewish women, who, in many cases, went from shtetl culture, where the lives of women were very prescribed, into America, where they had much less social support and were often expected to be financially independent, and became immersed in a culture with entirely different cultural and sexual mores. Needless to say, these adjustments were often confusing to the point of being overwhelming. The job of the advisers on ‘The Bintel Brief’ was, in part, to help them navigate this strange new terrain. It’s particularly interesting that when we look at Ann Landers or Miss Manners today, we see that Jewish advice-givers still serve as guides to American social customs—but now they write from within the system, creating and enforcing it, rather than merely tempting to navigate it.”

Born in 1918, Abigail Van Buren, popularly known as “Dear Abby,” and her twin sister, Ann Landers, were the children of the immigrant generation that “A Bintel Brief” advised. Born 17 minutes apart, Pauline Esther Friedman (Van Buren, known as “Popo”) and Esther Pauline Friedman (Landers, known as “Eppie”) were the daughters of Russian Jews. The family came to the United States in 1908 and settled in Sioux City, Iowa, in 1910. The future advice columnists were born eight years later, appropriately enough for American icons, on the 4th of July.

When “Dear Abby” began in 1956, it offered a vastly different tone—straightforward, direct and practical—than previous advice columns. Van Buren chose her pen name, in part, after Abigail from the Book of Samuel. Today, Van Buren suffers from Alzheimer’s, and the current “Dear Abby” column is penned by her daughter, Jeanne Phillips. It claims a daily readership of 110 million.

As girls the sisters were close enough to have a joint wedding when they turned 21, but during their careers Van Buren and Landers were quite competitive. They publicly reconciled in 1964, but it was unclear how sincere the reunion was. Landers debuted as a columnist in 1955 and became known for her wit, wisdom and Midwestern directness when giving advice. She gave ordinary people access to world-class experts, picking up the phone to call such luminaries as Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas and Notre Dame President Theodore Hesburgh when questions arose that she didn’t feel equipped to answer. Perhaps her most famous column was written about her own divorce after 36 years of marriage in 1975, for which she received 30,000 letters. She passed away of multiple myeloma in 2002.

Landers’ daughter, Margo Howard, continues her work as an advice columnist with her own syndicated “Dear Margo” column. In 2005, she published a book, Ann Landers in Her Own Words: Personal Letters to Her Daughter (Grand Central Publishing), which chronicled more than 40 years of letters from mother to daughter. When the book was released, Howard described the legacy of having a mother with such a public face:
“I was ‘saved’ from falling into the category of a celebrity’s child by two things: I was 15 when Mother became Ann Landers, and newspaper stardom is quite different than that which comes with film stars,” said Howard on her Web site, MargoHoward.com.

As for following in her mother’s advice-giving footsteps, Howard is clearly moved, not troubled, by writing in her mother’s shadow. “The similarity between Mother’s writing and mine is that people have long said we both write as we speak,” she says. “One of my treasured compliments from her is that, from the time I went into the newspaper business, she said I was ‘the real writer’ in the family. She was always supportive of my work and genuinely proud of me.”

The role of the modern Jewish advice-giver may have reached its zenith with the debut of Miss Manners, the pen name of columnist Judith Martin, née Perlman. She began writing her etiquette columns for The Washington Post in 1978. Now firmly established as a cultural touchstone and the final word on proper behavior (she even recently went on TV’s The Colbert Report to critique the behavior of the White House press corps), Martin’s column is distributed by United Press Syndicate to more than 200 papers every week. She is the author of, among other tomes, Miss Manners’ Guide to Excruciatingly Correct Behavior, Freshly Updated (W.W. Norton).

Born in 1938 to assimilated Jews, Martin did not grow up in a religiously observant home, but nonetheless felt that Jewish cultural values, particularly an emphasis on education, directly informed the work she does today.
“Both my parents were Jewish, and my father in particular had a strong affinity for Jewish culture, but not for the Jewish religion. He read an enormous amount but did not belong to a synagogue, so we were very steeped in Jewish culture but not in the formalities of the religion,” Martin recalls. “In my family, Jewish values were expressed in valuing education. Everybody taught. My mother was a fifth-grade teacher, and my father was an economist. Wherever he was, he always taught a course. None of us are capable of learning the smallest thing without having someone to teach it to.”

Martin’s knowledge about many of the more arcane customs that she navigates so clearly came from the social educationshe received from her European Jewish grandmother.

“My grandmother lived a very formal social life in Europe. I learned many things from her: One should only wear odd numbers of circles of pearls; a lady never checks her coat in a restaurant; when you set the table, you have to set it for four even if you have fewer people coming.”

Asked what Jewish social customs she receives the most questions about, she replied that, curiously, she fields queries from non-Jews who want to employ Jewish religious customs.

“There is, particularly in weddings, a peculiar sense of there being a boutique of traditions that you can choose whatever you want from. A popular one people inquire about is the Jewish tradition where both parents walk down the aisle with their child at the wedding.

“The number one etiquette problem in America today is greed and the desire to get things from people,” Martin warns. “The desire to do huge, splashy events that show off is the current practice for many people, and the Jewish culture is not immune to it.”

If Jewish advice columnists began by helping Jews navigate American culture, it’s come full circle in the work of Emily Yoffe, also known as “Dear Prudence” on Slate.com. Yoffe now finds herself, as a Jewish woman, helping new immigrant groups navigate the same questions that plagued Jewish immigrants 100 years ago.

“I have many questions from Indian Americans dealing with intermarriage and intergenerational conflict. Obviously we Jews haven’t exactly figured out the whole intermarriage thing either, so that’s a tough one. I had a letter from a reader a few months ago marrying out of the Indian community. It was akin to letters that Jews wrote to ‘A Bintel Brief’ 100 years ago. It’s the American story happening over and over.

“In some ways, I do have a Jewish perspective,” says Yoffe. “Judaism is a religion that focuses on justice in this world. It’s not so much focused on the rewards of the next life, but about how to live in this life. Maybe that’s why you see so many Jews in the advice business. The Talmud is concerned about what’s the right thing to do in each circumstance, and maybe we have a natural instinct toward figuring those problems out.”

Yoffe also sees an important difference between giving advice and providing psychological counseling.

“As an advice-giver, are you a psychologist? Do you have any training? No. A lot of times I feel like: This isn’t therapy. I know there are therapists who are in the advice business. I can say, ‘The problem is you,’ but that’s not what I’m interested in. I want to figure out the correct way to navigate a complicated situation.”

She tries to see each letter both in terms of what’s being asked and the subjectivity of the person writing. “One of the important things is seeing the letter, but not taking it at face value. Sometimes I feel like, when I’m reading a letter, I’m seeing what they call in English class an ‘unreliable narrator.’ I try to be a little cheeky, sarcastic, maybe with a bit of a Yiddish-inflected way of using language. It’s like, ‘C’mon, get off your high horse!’”

Yoffe also guards against bringing advice-giving from her professional world into her personal one. “Everyone is an advice-giver to some degree. In your head, you’re hearing some friend’s story and you think, ‘Obviously, what you should do is this’…A lot of the questions I get involve situations like that: ‘Do I say something, do I not say something?’ You have to be careful not to be too intrusive. Since I’ve been Prudie, I try to keep my mouth shut more. It’s really obnoxious if you’re Prudie in your private life.”

Still, the connection from the professional world into her private one is a matter of pride. “I do one video a week on Slate.com for ‘Dear Prudence,’ and I film it in a corner of my house where I’m seated in front of my Judaica collection on the shelves behind me. I always get at least a few e-mails saying, ‘Thank you for being a proud Jewish woman! I love seeing your Seder plate.’ I love it. It’s wonderful to know seeing me as a Jewish woman in the advice-giving business gives someone else some naches, pride and joy.”

Ruth Andrew Ellenson won the National Jewish Book Award in 2006 for her anthology, The Modern Jewish Girl’s Guide to Guilt. Learn more at www.guiltguide.com.

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